How Cowboys Lived in the Wild West

An integral part of American history is how cowboys lived in the Wild West. They had a huge impact on the development of our culture today. Whether you grew up watching Indiana Jones, played Cowboys and Robbers during recess, or dressed up as a cowboy or cowgirl for Halloween, it’s clear that our western pioneer ancestors left a lasting impact on the modern world.

Two cowboys hanging out outside of the chuckwagon
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

When we think about the Wild West era, we tend to assume that their living and hygiene habits were a little more up-to-date, considering the 19th century wasn’t that long ago. However, it turns out that their lifestyles weren’t as ideal as you might have expected. The pioneer’s sole purpose was to explore uncharted territories and discover locations to help expand the country. Sometimes, we take our clean and sanitary lifestyles for granted.

This is how the pioneers and cowboys kept themselves clean and healthy back in the days of the Wild West.

Chewing Tobacco Was Gross

Many people chewed tobacco back in the day. It is not only highly addictive, but the saliva created from chewing helped keep mouths moistened. Nowadays, we almost always have access to clean water, but that wasn’t the case back then. Since they couldn’t chug water while working in the fields, chewing tobacco was a refreshing alternative.

Cowboys sitting out in a hot field eating and chewing tobacco
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

When chewing tobacco was at the height of its popularity in the 19th century, saloons had a special vessel for spitting it into. These bowls were called “spittoons,” and they were seen in pubs, bars, stores, and even banks. They were filled with used tobacco, so it wasn’t the most beautiful sight.

Not so Comfortable Beds

Can you even imagine sleeping in a bed made of hay and straw? I can live with no bed frame, but sleeping on straw doesn’t sound comfortable by any stretch of the imagination. Well, that’s how people used to live. Since memory foam mattresses didn’t exist back then, they didn’t know what they were missing. They were just happy not to be sleeping on the floor.

A straw bed
Source: Imgur

Unfortunately, it was kind of difficult to maintain sanitary habits; they didn’t have the option to change the straw as often as they should have. The unhygienic conditions led to bugs and lice. Who can blame them? These days, a straw bed seems like an ideal nesting spot for insects. Gross!

A Soapy Surprise

In the lovely era we live in, there is a variety of different soaps to choose from. From Aveeno to Dove, finding soap isn’t an issue we think about daily. Despite not having many options to choose from, soap did exist in the Wild West, but its ingredients, however, were pretty simple.

Old medicines and soaps
Source: Pinterest

Most of them included animal fat, water, lye, and some herbs for a pleasant aroma. One of the southwestern plants they used to make the soap foamy was “Soap Plant,” aka Chlorogalum Pomeridianum, aka “amole.” We should really appreciate the fact that we can walk into a store and have tons of soap options and scents.

Skin Care Routine

Many of us are trying to get into summer mode: working on our bathing suit bodies and looking forward to tanning by the pool all day, enjoying the warm, beautiful sunshine. However, in the olden days, it was quite the opposite. Women admired blemish-free porcelain skin and made a conscious effort to stay out of the sun.

Anna Held, an actress from the late 1800s.
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Summer was not fun for the women of the Wild West. They spent the hot months wearing clothes that covered almost all of their skin. Sure, perfect, pale skin was the beauty standard at the time, but that wasn’t the only reason. They learned the health benefits of staying out of the sun. Now, we put on sunscreen, and we’re good to go.

Clean Drinking Water

In the early 1800s, the development of the United States reached the western region. By then, there were sanitary filtering systems for clean water. However, getting all of that new technology to unfamiliar territory was not an easy task. To be fair, the western areas did have mountain streams and rivers for fresh drinking water, but what about the regions in the dry, desert states?

An old western town with a small drinking well
Source: Pixabay

Depending on what region you were in, access to drinkable water was challenging. The most reliable source for freshwater was collecting it during the rainfall. Can you imagine going outside whenever it’s raining with buckets? And then making sure the water lasts until the next time it rains?

Wild, Wild Winds

Keeping themselves clean was one of the biggest issues the frontiersmen had to face in the dusty, sandy winds of the western desert environment. Dust storms were not uncommon in the western lands, and the stronger the winds, the more sand is going to fly everywhere. Other than getting dirty, the sand in the air got in their eyes easily, which is uncomfortable and makes it difficult to see.

Dust clouds coming towards a small town
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Too much sand in your eyes or dust in your lungs can cause respiratory diseases and other health complications. It’s not something we think about much in our modern era, but this was a major concern for working westerners. As a result, whenever these intense gusts of wind flew in, they made sure their faces and bodies were completely covered.

Toilet Paper Wasn’t a Thing Until the Mid-1800s

In the 21st Century, working toilets are the most common thing ever. Every home has at least one; they are at stores, concerts, schools, parties, and clubs. You name it; I bet you have a bathroom. Even beaches and outdoor events provide porta-potties, at the very least. But before plumbing systems were mainstream, people went into an outdoor shed, which covered a hole in the ground.

An old outhouse with a sign that says to use the red cob (of corn) first and then use the white to see if you need another one
Source: Pinterest

We come across these strange circumstances rarely, in isolated hiking or camping areas. However, once we get back home, we have a nice comfortable bathroom to do our business, and then we flush it away. The old westerners didn’t have that luxury. The worst part about their bathroom situation was the horrendous smells that attracted bugs. Yuck! Oh, and toilet paper didn’t become a thing until the mid-1800s. They were forced to use leaves and grass.

Hair Wash Day

One of the best feelings in the world is washing your hair; it feels clean, fresh, and smells amazing! But washing our hair is a beautiful privilege that not every generation has been able to experience. Before hair products hit the market, washing your locks wasn’t nearly as enjoyable as it is now.

A woman with long hair sitting around ivy covering the side of a house
Photo by Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Back then, men and women washed their hair using scentless bars of soap made from lard and lye. Another interesting “shampoo” concoction was whiskey mixed with castor oil. Needless to say, washing your hair didn’t clean it very well, and you certainly didn’t smell like vanilla or coconut after your wash day. Some women even curled their hair using heated pencils. Yikes!

Girls Were Cleaner Than Boys

Not to stereotype gender roles, but, typically speaking, women were more hygienic than men in the Wild West. Since clean water was depended on the weather, they couldn’t waste it, which made bathing a rare occurrence (at least compared to today’s standards). Many folks would bathe just once a week.

Two cowgirls on horses
Source: Pixabay

Since the cultural norm at the time was distinguished by gender, women were primarily at home taking care of indoor chores, while men worked outdoors in the fields with frequent dusty winds, it only makes sense that men got dirtier in between baths. Can you imagine working and sweating all day, and only showering once a week? I’m guessing men at the time didn’t smell very good.

The Old Western Saloons

For centuries, alcohol was a key ingredient in medicinal concoctions, and it was used to sanitize items. However, like many other things in the Old West, saloons were far from sanitary – at least in the beginning. As soon as the pioneers discovered new territories, saloons were set up temporarily, and served low-quality liquor known as “rotgut.”

An old western saloon
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Just the name Rotgut makes me lose my appetite, but it gets even more disgusting. The bars had rails with towels on them so that men could clean beer off their beards. Considering the era we’re talking about here, it’s safe to assume that the towels weren’t washed in between uses.

The Longer the Locks…

For men, growing out their locks and grooming facial hair is a modern trend that we’ve seen in recent years. Surprisingly, frontiersmen and cowboys appreciated a nice cut and shave whenever they got the chance. Who doesn’t like a fresh new look before going to explore a new city?

James B Hickok with long hair and a long mustache
Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection / Shutterstock

As you would expect, they didn’t have the time or the means to take care of their long manes while they were traveling to different lands. In the Old West, people would distinguish men who had been traveling based on how long their hair was. Even today, a person’s hair can completely alter their appearance, and they are probably slightly judged by their haircut.

Bringing Diseases

The entire reason that the pioneers and frontiersmen headed out west to discover uncharted lands was to expand the nation. That’s why the conditions were less than ideal and difficult to endure. They assumed these new territories would be clean and uninfected with diseases. Unfortunately, they brought bacteria and viruses with them from the East Coast. Not to mention, the infections they encountered along the way.

Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

There wasn’t enough medical care to help all the infected patients. As a result, many of these brave explorers died of various diseases such as influenza, measles, and tuberculosis. These days, we have vaccines, drugs, and medical professionals to tend to sick individuals at all times. We are all extremely lucky to be living with medical advancements and should never take our health for granted.

The Truth About the Bandanas

So, if you want to dress up as a cowboy or cowgirl for Halloween, a hat and a pair of cowboy boots are essential. But what is one of the major accessories you need to complete your look? A kerchief or bandana. If you watch old Westerns, you definitely knew that answer.

Two cowgirls with large scarves around their necks
Source: Pinterest

We moderns see it as a fashion statement, but there is a perfectly logical reason why the pioneers wore bandanas. As we mentioned, the winds of the Southwest could get really dangerous. Pioneers wore bandanas to protect themselves from inhaling dust. That’s why we often see them on their mouths or around their necks. (Kind of like wearing masks in our current pandemic).

The Evolution of Men’s Hair

We already explained that the length of cowboys’ hair was generally an indicator of their long travels and explorations. But, over time, as appliances and technology evolved, hairstyles and hygiene products became more accessible. Thankfully, with better access to sanitary products, the pioneers started to smell and look better.

Wyatt Earp with nice combed hair and a cleaned-up mustache
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Western men started to understand the importance of cutting and cleaning their hair once these items hit the market. Men quickly started to cut their hair and shaved their beards, creating a trendy, clean new look. Although styles continue to evolve, most men make sure to groom every once in a while and continue to use hygiene products (hopefully).

Dental Care

In addition to a lack of drinking water, they didn’t have many dental products. At the time, people barely brushed their teeth, and oral and dental procedures were intense. For example, pulling your tooth out was the go-to protocol if someone had a cavity or root canal. That’s not even the craziest part.

Billy the Kid
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There weren’t many dentists in the West; however, people needed dental care. Barbers and blacksmiths came to the rescue and were known to remove people’s teeth with some kind of plyers. It sounds painful. And, no offense, but barbers should be cutting hair, not pulling out teeth. There is no way they learned that in beauty school!

Taking Too Many Showers Was Considered Unhealthy

You may be surprised to hear that western folks believed that bathing too much could be unhealthy and lead to illnesses. The theories were that if you were “too clean,” your pores were “too open,” allowing bacteria and diseases to enter your body. Sure, a little dirt can help improve your immune system, but that certainly doesn’t mean that there are health dangers linked to daily showers.

Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

As we previously stated, since clean water wasn’t easily obtainable and relied on the rain, many people didn’t even have the option of bathing regularly. Their theories obviously turned out to be wrong. After not showering and wearing the same dirty clothes for days on end, cowboys suffered major consequences in the form of fungal infections.

Like Prince Charming… but Smelly

In our modern minds, cowboys and pioneers were brave, courageous men- which they certainly were. But what made them such attractive, heart-melting fellas all the girls swooned for were their expert horseback riding skills, like Prince Charming. Unfortunately, their bad odor and hygiene deficiency didn’t go unnoticed.

Kitty Cannut riding a horse
Photo by Bill Manns / Shutterstock

Although I would love for a cowboy to come sweep me off my feet, I prefer to enjoy the view from a distance. If they weren’t bathing and traveling on horses all day, you can only imagine how smelly they must have been. But if you’re a freshly showered cowboy, I’m waiting for you…

Cowboy Hangout Spot

The pioneers didn’t have many forms of entertainment. Remember, this is way before iPads, TVs, and even board games. With not much else to do, cowboys spent most of their free time at the saloon. The most popular drink at the time was “whiskey,” which was basically a mixture of burnt sugar, chewing tobacco, and sugar alcohol. It definitely shouldn’t call itself a whiskey, but the drink was strong.

Cowboys drinking in a saloon
Photo by Bill Manns / Shutterstock

Another favorite was some kind of “cocktail” made out of cactus wine, tequila, and peyote tea. Both of these powerful drinks were dangerous too. They were known to cause cowboys to become violent, and bar fights were not uncommon. Black eyes and injuries were evident, but sometimes, the fights resulted in deaths.

Whiskey as a Meal

In addition to pork and beans, one of the main “foods” during the California Gold Rush was a glass of whiskey. Drinking whiskey as a meal wasn’t out of the ordinary, and all meals at the time were just as simple and as you would think. Since this was before railroads were built, they couldn’t receive anything from other places.

Cowboys sitting under a tree eating dinner and drinking
Photo by Courtesy Everett Collection / Shutterstock

Therefore, most of the meals in the Wild West came from the wild. Whenever they could, cowboys and pioneers would hunt their meals. But once the settlements started to develop, diverse recipes and more food products were available. They no longer had to worry about hunting just to get food on the table.

The Healing Power of Colorado’s Thermal Springs

Our daily shower habits are ingrained in our routines, but they are something that has developed over time. Sure, they are convenient and sanitary, but it’s also important to keep yourself clean for health reasons. Even the cowboys and cowgirls of the Wild West loved to be clean and refreshed.

A man bathing in Pagosa Hot Spring, Colorado
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Back in the day, bathing was seen as a luxury, but the pioneers found a way to take a nice, extravagant bath in the beautiful Rocky Mountain state of Colorado. After discovering the Pagosa Springs, they would bathe there. They also believed that clean, freshwater could be used to cure or heal various health conditions. Technically, they weren’t wrong. Bathing keeps you healthy.

The Medicinal Waters of Arkansas

We just mentioned that the pioneers believed that the waters in the hot springs had the power to treat and heal different illnesses. The springs in Arkansas were also used for medicinal purposes. Nowadays, if you have joint pain or muscle issues, there are a variety of creams and treatment plans you can use.

A photograph of a city
Source: Twitter

Back in the day, medical professionals in America and Europe advised their patients with back pains and inflammations to take a trip to these hot springs so that they could soak themselves in the water. In the 19th century, people would have to travel thousands of miles to cure simple joint pain; now, we can go to our local grocery store and get some Icy-Hot.

Cocktail Cures

We are very fortunate to live in a time when technology, science, and medicine, is developing faster than any other time period in history. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the American Frontier in the 19th century didn’t have readily available medicine, and it was a serious matter.

Employees in a drug store circa 1900
Photo by Glasshouse Images / Shutterstock

Lack of medicine was a huge concern, but don’t worry; they created their own. Instead of actual medicine, they would concoct special recipes or healing cocktails. A particular favorite “medicine” choice included Brandy in the mixture. They also gave their concoctions names like Tarantula Juice and Coffin Varnish.

Mining for the Future

When people think about the Wild West, they automatically associate it with saloon fights between cowboys and sheriffs. However, an integral part of this period was all the mining happening. I mean, it was the hunt for gold that basically drove us to the Wild West in the first place.

Metal miners sitting in mining cars on the way to the mines circa 1909
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

But it was more than just gold that was discovered in the gorgeous, mountainous western states. Prized metal and minerals, including brass, copper, coal, bronze, iron, and silver, were also found. What they didn’t know is that many of these metals would be used in the future for hygiene and medical equipment.

How Cowboys Unwind

In our modern world, there is one particular thing people like to turn to if they need an escape. When someone wants to get away and have a little bit of fun outside of the pressure of reality, people head over to Sin City. What better way to escape life than to drink and gamble in the casinos of Las Vegas, Nevada?

Men playing a game of Faro while other men observe
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

But did you ever wonder how the whole concept even got started? Believe it or not, it began with cowboys. For decades and decades, our pioneering American ancestors have been playing the Sin City game; even they needed to unwind. They used their three W’s to relax: Whiskey, wagering, and whoring.

Deep Healing, the Wild Way

Taking care of your emotional and mental health is just as important as your physical health. Its common knowledge that the Native Americans would perform special rituals and ceremonies for healing and connecting with other spirits. But we don’t hear much about the western American cowboys doing anything like that.

A fortune teller holding cards
Photo by Glasshouse Images / Shutterstock

As it turns out, the pioneers were pretty superstitious and even practiced fortune-telling. These tough cowboys would gaze into crystal balls and read tarot cards. Immigrants from Europe, like the Romani Gypsies, continued practicing their traditional, mystical fortune-telling rituals. Although many people (including myself) still believe in this kind of stuff, these days, it is considered a pseudoscience and are not as commonly practiced.

The Ultimate Live Show of the 1800s

On the topic of mental and emotional health, there were other ways for people to unwind and have some fun. While some people enjoyed gambling, others loved saving up for concerts and live shows. Back in the mid-1800s, Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was the top attraction and exciting performance to watch.

Native Americans mounted on horseback during a wild west show in 1901
Source: Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress

It was an annual traveling show and gave pioneers the chance to hear some live music. The show included Western Entertainment, such as theatrical reenactments of shoot-outs and battles, fun tricks, and, most important, the famous frontiersman Buffalo Bill. The soldier and hunter was a showman everyone wanted to see.

The Wild in Wild West

So, what exactly was it that made the Wild West so wild? Probably all the uncharted territories, right? The wonders and curiosities of what lies beyond the Rocky Mountains and great sand dunes of the southwestern desert are what motivated frontiersmen like the Wheeler Survey Group to start exploring the lands out west.

George M Wheeler on the edge of a small cliff
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

This group of men was led by Captain George Montague Wheeler from 1869-1879. They explored specific locations in the southwestern region, which later became known as Wheeler Geologic Area in Colorado, Wheeler Peak in Nevada, and Wheeler Peak in New Mexico. The group also created maps and documentation of their discoveries.

More Than Just a Cowboy Saloon

One of the most unique parts of New Mexico is the amazing blend of Spanish, Latin, American, and Native American culture and architecture. One of the most incredible structures is the Old Mission Church, filled with Western American History, and a popular tourist attraction nowadays.

Church Zuni Pueblo
Photo by Granger / Shutterstock

Located in New Mexico, the structure has been standing for centuries. It witnessed many now-famous adventures and events, including the Pueblo Revolution, transitioning ownership between Mexico, Spain, and the US, and, at one point, it was even occupied by Franciscan monks. With all the history that the building encountered, it’s a must-see structure if you are ever in the area.

Hoover Dam Turned Colorado River

In addition to the Wheeler Survey Group’s discovering the Rocky Mountains and southwestern states, and the New Mexico Old Mission Church, there are lots of other significant, still-standing landmarks that frontiersmen discovered over a century ago. However, environmental changes happen over time, and this picture is a perfect example of that.

Black Canyon, on the Colorado River border between Nevada and Arizona
Source: Wikimedia Commons / National Archives of the United States

This photo-documented a waterfront along the Hoover Dam back in 1871. Believe it or not, this area is now part of the Black Canyon along the Colorado River. How crazy is that? It has been over a century, so it’s only natural for landmarks to adapt and change over time.